The Pursuit

A Short Story

We met in Edale, or rather, we collided, when unthinking youth, two pint mugs in each fist, swung round to serve his mates, jolted my drinking arm, and baptised the stone floor in best bitter. To jeers from the congregation of hikers, young Pete muttered a shamefaced apology.

The barmaid tutted and refilled my glass.

‘They don’t make ‘em wi’ brains any more,’ she said.
Wiping beer from my grey stubble, I answered with a wry smile, ‘Never mind. I was young once.’

Amongst the drying waterproofs, inhaling steam and beer fumes and second-hand tobacco-smoke, loud of speech and quick to laughter, the four lads began talking about the Pennine Way. I pricked up my ears.
Like all youths, they argued for argument’s sake, young dogs tussling over imaginary prey. First they disagreed on the starting time for next day, then they disputed the merits of the alternative routes. And through it all, their excitement turned readily to good-natured banter, most of it aimed at Pete, the baby of the party.

Young Pete stood his ground, deflecting the jibes, turning them back onto his older team-mates. The alcohol amplified their voices, and my eavesdropper’s smile broadened. When one of them recalled the beer-spilling incident, suggesting ‘the gentleman there at the bar’ would no doubt agree that Pete had proved himself a right plonker, they all looked at me in eager anticipation.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘namesakes should stick together, so I’m on Pete’s side. But it’s my round. Four pints?’

Sharing their table, I learned they were heading north next day towards Holmfirth and hoped to get in at the Youth Hostel. I thought it had closed since I’d stayed there thirty-five years before, but I kept the doubt to myself.

One of them asked me what I was doing in Edale. I told him I’d had a year of family problems with little time to myself, and I hoped that a few days alone in the hills would reassure me of my independent existence. For a moment I feared I’d lost him. Then he nodded slowly and said, ‘I think we all like to show we can do it.’

‘Course we can, yer feeble sod,’ yelled young Pete, shattering our fragile moment.

Next morning, frayed edges of grey cloud hid the gritstone cliffs a thousand feet above, and a blustery wind exposed the pale undersides of summer leaves with a roar like rushing water. The four lads were checking their rucksacks, exchanging mock insults, loud voices in the quiet village. Pete saw me and waved. He looked lean, energetic, sure of himself, but his kit seemed out of place: a faded grey canvas rucksack, khaki shorts and white sea-boot stockings, all rarities in the fashion-conscious outdoors of the nineteen-nineties.

‘Who’s navigating?’ one of them shouted.
‘Neil is,’ said Pete, quick as a flash.
‘Come on then,’ yelled Neil, shouldering his pack. ‘Let’s go!’
Pete ignored him and walked towards me.
‘Which way are you going?’ he asked.
‘North, like you.’
‘Really?’ He looked down at my trekking poles, then up at my grey hair, his expression a mixture of scorn and disbelief.
‘Yes,’ I replied, suppressing a smile, ‘but I’m going the long way via Jacob’s Ladder. I’ll leave the direct route to you hard men today.’

As I spoke, I felt a pang of envy for their youthful adventure.

Two hours later, through a break in the mist, the gunmetal reservoir flashed at me then hid behind its wind-whipped skirts. Squatting in the lee of a boulder, I checked my route plan. I was going well. The old muscles were passing the test. I could still do it.

A shout broke through the gloom, followed by four lads. They stopped a few yards away, their backs to me.

‘A path, at last!’ Neil yelled. ‘That means we must be here, near Mill Hill.’ He stabbed a finger at the map as the others gathered round.
‘No,’ said one, looking over his shoulder. ‘That can’t be right. I just saw a reservoir down there.’
Neil didn’t want to hear that. ‘Look, are you absolutely sure?’ he demanded.
Someone swore. ‘We’ve come the wrong way. We’ve come south-west instead of north-west.’

Realisation spread, and I saw Pete’s head drop. He was panting from the exertion of ploughing through the bogs, his once-white stockings now stained black.

‘We’ve got to get moving,’ said Neil, anxiety in his voice. ‘We still have twenty miles to do. If we follow this path we’ll soon be back on track. Right?’

Dumbly they nodded then hurried away in single file, almost running between the boulders and the heather-topped hummocks. I knew exactly how they felt. I’d made the same mistake on my first visit. As I stood up, the first spots of rain struck my cheek. I pocketed route plan, map and compass and followed the footprints, glad to have spared my young acquaintances the knowledge that a man three times their age had arrived first.

Early that afternoon I saw again Pete’s grey rucksack in the distance, half a mile off the path. They were splashing through bogs and stumbling over ankle-wrenching tussocks, making straight for the rain-sodden dome of Bleaklow, which lurked in the mist. I strode out on the longer but easier paved route, shaking my head at the folly of youth.

Daylight was fading by the time I descended the steep track to civilisation. Away to my right, the four lads floundered through binding stems of drenching, chest-high bracken, paying in energy and discomfort for their direct route, like me so long ago. They reached the road and huddled round their map, and I watched them head east towards the road over Holme Moss and a late end to their wet, dark day. I turned west for a bath, dinner, and bed.

‘We get all sorts on the Pennine Way,’ said my landlady. ‘Some of ‘em shouldn’t be away from their mothers.’
‘I saw a party like that today. They were heading for Holmfirth Youth Hostel. It is closed, isn’t it?’
‘Holmfirth? Been closed for years. They must have an old map!’

I was young once, I remembered. We used what maps we could beg or borrow, and, when things went wrong, we relied on our energy to get out of trouble. Now the energy is gone, so I plan ahead and navigate better. But I know where my best stories come from.

Next day, a couple walking south said they’d seen four lads, but they couldn’t recall any distinctive features, certainly not the grey rucksack or the khaki shorts.

‘They looked to be struggling,’ the man said, and gave a knowing laugh, ‘but who doesn’t, up here?’
His friend asked if I was trying to catch them, and I found myself searching for the right reply.
‘I’m interested, that’s all,’ I answered. ‘I just hope they make it all the way.’
‘They’ll make it,’ she said with certainty. ‘They’ll pull or push each other through.’

I nodded. I too had sensed powerful forces surging within their playful conflict: team spirit, peer pressure, individual pride, fear of failure. And strong feelings were pricking me: I was older than them, but I wasn’t far behind and might even catch up. I marched on.

The third afternoon proved decisive. I ended my walking early, entranced by the atmosphere of an isolated guest house, huddling below Emily Bronte’s austere hills. That evening I shared stories with travellers from Devon and Finland, Holland and Kazakhstan. As we ate together, four weary young hikers came in, but they were not the lads I knew, just another bunch of errant route-seekers, learning the hard way. After a moment’s disappointment, I felt relief that young Pete’s brash chauvinism had not burst our precious bubble of international harmony.

Next day I left early, striding effortlessly across the moors, uplifted by memories of the evening, and I stopped at a pub for mid-morning bacon rolls and hot sweet tea. The landlord leaned over his bar, regaling me with tales of wayfarers helped by his generosity. I talked about my own journey and remarked that I might easily have arrived the night before.

‘Good job you didn’t,’ he said. ‘We were full. Four lads turned up just before dark. They looked a right sorry sight when they straggled up that road there, so I did ‘em a cheap deal.’
‘Four lads? Was one of them called Pete? A young lad with khaki shorts and an old grey rucksack?’
‘One of ‘em was called Pete. Do you know ‘em, then?’
‘Very well,’ I answered. ‘I was with them at Edale. I kept hoping I’d see them again. D’you know, that young Pete’s ever so much like I used to be. And they’re going at it just like we did thirty-five years ago - all action and no thinking. It takes me back, but I tell you what, I could have caught ‘em last night. That would have showed ‘em!’
‘You’ve just missed ‘em. They’ve only been gone an hour.’
I turned to the window. ‘I could still do it,’ I said softly.

When I looked round, the landlord was smiling.

‘Catch ‘em?’ he inquired gently, shaking his head. ‘No, you can’t catch ‘em. Let ‘em go. You’ve proved a point, but keep it to yourself. There’s no need for them to know.’

Pete Stott
1999
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